The tragedy of Thetis

The first draft of the cover for Thetis

In 2022, my poetic narrative about Thetis, immortal sea nymph and mother to Achilles, will be published. Thetis is an immortal goddess who learns what it means to be human, and the narrative follows her life, before and after the Trojan war. Stories of gods and goddesses have always fascinated me, and it’s both exciting (and a bit scary) to think of Thetis finally becoming available in print.

Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells us about the final weeks of the Trojan war and Thetis plays an active part in all the major plot points. Yet she remains a peripheral figure, despite her power to intervene with the gods, which is evident throughout.

The story of Thetis is a tragic one. Raped and forced into marriage with the mortal King Peleus of Phthia, Thetis was initially a reluctant mother. In some versions outside of Homer, she killed her first six children, before Achilles was born. This son was different and Thetis adored him, doing all she could to prevent his dying young as foretold by the Fates. Efforts to save Achilles included dipping him in the River Styx to make him invulnerable, and sending him to Skyros, disguised as a maid for the Princess Deidamia, to avoid having to fight at Troy.

The attempt to hide Achilles failed when Odysseus tricked him into revealing his identity. At Troy, Achilles died from an arrow shot through his heel. This was the spot where Thetis held him in the river between her finger and thumb, when he was a baby, an action which inadvertently led to his death. Tragedy is defined as great suffering, destruction, and distress and the story of Thetis is tragic by anyone’s standards, yet Thetis has rarely been a central topic of attention.

Thetis and Peleus

My version of the life of Thetis is being published by Esplanade Press, an independent publisher based in Scarborough, and run by Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft.  Part of the narrative was due to be performed at Rotunda Nights, a monthly poetry and music event run by Scarborough Museums Trust, but was cancelled during the first lockdown. We still hope to arrange a performance of some of the most vivid excerpts during a launch event or events. Throughout the preparation stages, a constant topic of discussion has been the extent to which we can assume – or not – the reader’s awareness and knowledge of ancient Greek myth.

Classical writers are themselves divided on how to read and interpret ancient stories. There are no original copies so our understanding relies on fragments and references, often made many centuries later. I’ve used the Iliad, alongside other classical works which refer to Thetis, as a foundation for the narrative.

5th century BC water jar depicting the sack of Troy

The Iliad was an oral poem, thought to have been first written in 800 BC, which tells of events alleged to have taken place around 1200 BC. The ruins of a great city, believed to be Troy, have been excavated at Hissarlik in northern Turkey, as have the remains of palaces at Sparta and Mycenae, thought to belong to the king brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon.

Findings suggest the war between the Greeks and Trojans has some historical basis, but Homer’s epic is inextricably entwined with myths about the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. Thetis is set in a world where mortals and immortals live side by side and the gods think nothing of interfering in the lives of humans. This makes her story full of poetic potential while the gaps in our knowledge are a gift for the creative imagination.


Thetis and Hephaestus

The eldest of 50 sea nymph sisters known as the Nereids, Thetis’s parents were Nereus, often called the Old Man of the Sea, and Doris, goddess of freshwater rivers and springs. Thetis’s grandmother was Gaia, earth goddess and her grandfather was Uranos. Both were Titan gods, overthrown by the Olympians, led by Zeus and Poseidon.

Thetis has provenance and a long history. Responsible for saving Hephaestus when Hera threw him from Olympus, Thetis also supported Zeus when Olympus was in rebellion, gave sanctuary to Dionysius when he fled from Thrace, and helped Jason and his Argonauts to navigate through the Clashing Rocks.

Images of Dionysus, the God of wine, and Jason travelling through the Clashing Rocks

All this took place before the famous Judgement of Paris, where Paris, the youngest prince of Troy, was forced by Zeus to choose the most beautiful goddess. Aphrodite, Athena and Hera were in competition with each other but it was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who bribed Paris with the promise that the most beautiful woman in the world, would fall in love with him. The affair between Paris and Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, caused Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, to go to war against the Trojans. During the judgement, Paris gave Aphrodite a golden apple. Inscribed with the words to the fairest. This was bought by Eris, the goddess of strife, to the wedding of Thetis and Peleus.

There she is again!

Detail from the 5th century BC Francois Vase showing the wedding of Thetis and Peleus 

The Trojan War has fascinated many writers and the 21st century has seen a range of published books inspired by the wars alongside the pantheon of ancient greeks gods and goddesses.

I love them all.

They include The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Millar, The Silence of the girls by Pat Barker, A thousand ships by Natalie Haynes (who also presents the Radio 4 series Stands Up for the Classics), Achilles by Elizabeth Cook, The Peneliopad by Margaret Atwood, and Ransom by David Malouf. There are historical non-fiction books such as Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan Wars, Brittany Hughes‘s Helen of Troy and In Search of Homer by Adam Nicholson, plus films; the Hollywood version told in Troy and the BBC series Troy, Fall of a City. Poems inspired by the Trojan war include Christopher Logue’s War Music and Seamus Heany’s The Cure at Troy. All these provide evidence of a continuing fascination. The women of Troy have all recently been revisited but so far, Thetis has not yet played a central role.

From the BBC drama Troy Fall of a City

I’m curious as to why so little about Thetis has come down through history. She is sometimes mentioned in passing so maybe it’s because few writers seem to have joined up the dots.

Esplanade Press will be publishing Thetis in the summer of 2022 and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise her status and position her centre stage. In my mind, this is where Thetis has always deserved to be.


Thetis asking Hephaestus to make new amour for Achilles

The yin and yang of poetry submissions

image showing scrabble letters spelling Do not give up

Dreich have selected my collection Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers for publication as one of their Chapbook Slims. Now, like eggs, these poems are resting in the Dreich nest. The acceptance email from Jack Caradoc last month was a reminder of how acceptance is the plus side of rejection. The two go hand in hand. They’re the Yin and Yang of the whole submission experience, and I’ve been reflecting again on the whole process of attempting to release work into the public sphere.

Rejection is integral to the publishing endeavour. But if you don’t try, the chances of seeing your work in print are zero. It has to be done. My rejections far outway the acceptances so although the Publications page on this blog looks healthy, it comes at a cost.

Rejection hurts.

Imposter Syndrome loves it.

When a poem, or group of poems, are refused, it brings back the early fears of never being good enough or not having anything worthwhile to say. It’s something all writers and poets have to deal with.

image showing a poster about imposter syndrome

I’d tried submitting to collection calls before but with no success.  This time I took a different approach.  I’d previously submitted poems which formed a narrative on a single theme. This time, I opted for individual poems but, as I worked through the selection process, I found myself bringing together work which had more connections than I first realised.

Almost without exception, the poems deal with myth and legend with a touch of magical realism. They were less about the personal and more about ways in which past can connect with the present. The value of mythical thinking is the lack of hard evidence that the characters and happenings have truths There’s no confirmation that any of it is real in the way history claims to be, and it’s this lack of empiricism that creates spaces where readers can bring their own interpretations. At least, that’s how I understand working within the area.

Myths fascinate me, and the acceptance from Dreich feels like confirmation after all the silence. I re-read an earlier post on  Rejection Blues, and thought it worth including some reminders of my thoughts from a year ago.

The standard advice on rejection is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. The poem might not fit the theme or the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces. This inevitably means saying no to good work.

image showing posters of the word No

For most writers, it takes a significant amount of bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection can feel personal. However, you have to find ways to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Image of the quote Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry is one of the hardest genres to work in when it comes to pleasing people. Writing a poem involves both art and skill but also a lot of effort to make your point using the least amount of words alongside style and presentation on the page. It’s a tough call and I’m now realising the bar is set even higher.

How do you follow a collection?

In particular, if it contains what you think are some of your best poems, those you’ve worked with on and off for a long time. The only answer is to carry on doing whatever inspired these poems in the first place. For me, it’s joining online poetry courses and workshops where you write to prompts. The results might not be perfect poems but they’re foundations to work on. Without these incentives. many of the twenty poems in the chapbook would not have been started, never mind finished. So it’s thanks to the course mentors for their time and attention. I’d recommend looking up the following; Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela T Carr @dreamingskin and Jim Bennett @thepoetrykit. Also, it’s thanks to everyone else on these courses for sharing and commenting on the group’s work.

In the face of rejection, the best advice of all is to carry on observing the world around you and find the ways you feel most comfortable with when describing it. It helps to get into a writing habit. It doesn’t matter what you produce at the time, it’s more about the doing. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing every morning in a random stream of consciousness. Get your thoughts down onto paper and often a single idea or phrase will appear which you know you’ll be able to use in the future. Dorothea Brand in Becoming a Writer says you need to make regular appointments with your muse because it’s only through the action of writing that she will appear.

Most of all, don’t give up.

Keep writing, reading, taking workshops, and have the confidence to go through the submissions process.

One day it might happen, and then all the hard work will feel worthwhile!

image showing a single person silhouetted on a hill in front of a sunset

John Keats and ‘negative capability’ then and now

John Keats by Joseph Severn (painted 1845)

I revisited Keats after reading this blog post a fix of autumn, the darkness coming down by Felix Hodcroft. Felix writes about the Keats poem To Autumn, saying it’s a ‘poem, so well-known that it’s become a cliché, a hand-me-down (“season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….”) which, however (like much ye olde stuff) repays a fresh look.’

So I did.

I struggle to like traditional poetry, such as the romantics, Keats, Shelley, and Byron. I find them difficult to read. For me, there’s a lack of resonance, but I followed Felix’s advice and listened to the Radio 4 series on Keats Odes, starting with Sean O’Brien and Ode to Melancholy. They didn’t help and I still found the poetry of Keats hard going.

Comments on Felix’s post included references to Bright Star, the Jane Campion film looking at the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Beautifully photographed, it’s a visual treat. The film covers the last years of Keats life and how he was forced to choose between staying with Fanny in Hampstead, or going to Italy for his health.  Keats died within three months of arriving in Rome and twelve years later, Fanny married Louis Lindo with whom she bore a son Edmund, and daughter Margaret.

Fanny kept letters from Keats and her children had these published as Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. By this time, Keats had become famous for his poetry but his relationship with Fanny was unknown. The knowledge created a scandal during which Fanny was criticised and seen as ‘unworthy‘. This viewpoint remained until the 1937 publication of her letters to Keats sister, also called Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats helped to change public opinion and the relationship between Fanny and John was finally acknowledged as a true love affair.

Portrait of John Keats at Wentworth Place on the day of his composing ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 1834, by Joseph Severn.

Bright Star includes Keats poetry and hearing his work within the context of the film worked well. The language which I found difficult on the page came to life in a different way, but I still struggled to appreciate the written versions. I think this is partly to do with the language. To Autumn, for example, is full of the dated use of thee’s and thou’s:

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

This is poetry belonging to a different time, unlike Keats’ letters which I find more readable. In particular, I was intrigued by his reference to ‘negative capability’. In a letter to his brothers George and Tom, dated 1817, Keats describes this as ‘…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’ It’s the only reference he makes to ‘negative capability‘ but the concept has remained associated with him to this day.

I’ve been reflecting on how this might look in practice.

Discussions with Felix and other poets have shown how poems can be interpreted differently to the poet’s intention. The best way I can describe it is when poems contain fluidity. The lack of fixed meanings allows them to mean different things to different people, despite poets and readers often being strangers to each other, and the poet having no way of knowing what the reader brings to the page in terms of their own life experience.

For me, this is part of the magic of poetry which, like certain music, can reach out and touch. We feel this happening, and can’t always explain why. I’ve been wondering if it might be an example of ‘negative capability’ i.e. the mystery exists, and we’re comfortable accepting it, without the need for explanation. An effective poem is one which leaves ‘space’ for the reader’s resonance. They find themselves on the page, and recognise a life experience, because the poet has left gaps for this to happen.

Sketch of Keats by Joseph Severn, drawn shortly before his death in Rome
I don’t think it matters that I’ve struggled to appreciate Keats poems. It doesn’t lessen my interest in him as a person, and I remain fascinated by his short life and the personality which comes over from reading his letters. Culture changes and Keats speaks from a different time, using words and phrases belonging to the early 19th century rather than 2021. Language is constrained by the time in which it’s used, yet Keats works better for me when heard rather than read, which suggests his poetry still contains magic.
Keats Shelly House in Rome and the room where Keats stayed and died
While researching Keats, I came across some interesting videos on You Tube.

The Death of Keats‘ provides a tour through the Keats Shelley House in Rome, as does A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the museum.

Keats House, also known as Wentworth House, visits what was originally a pair of semi-detached residences in Hampstead, where the poet lived from 1818 to 1820, and where Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on an Grecian Urn were written.

I’m currently reading the book Bright Star which contains the love letters from John Keats to Fannny Brawne.

Often beginning ‘My Dearest Girl‘, or ‘Lady‘, and ending ‘Yours forever’, they’re still full of emotion, for example ‘Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately….write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been‘.

Like Keats’ poetry, the language comes from a different time, but anyone who’s felt love will find something to identify in these letters where the voice of Keats remains on the page.

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me.’

Such a shame the art and practice of letter writing has waned!

Finally, it might be worth remembering that Keats poetry was not well thought of in his own time. This was maybe due to him not fitting into the English class system, as much as a dislike of his poems. Unlike fellow Romantic poets Byron (educated at Harrow and Cambridge) and Shelley (Eton and Oxford), Keats left school at 14 to become an apprentice to a surgeon and apothecary. His life is detailed in a number of biographies both old and new. Keats by Sidney Colville (1909)  and The Life of John Keats by William Michael Rossetti (1887) can be read online while contemporary accounts include the controversial ‘John Keats a New Life‘ by Nicholas Roe and more traditional Keats by Andrew Motion. Chapter One can be read online here.

When Endymion, the first ‘long’ poem by Keats, was published in 1818, it was poorly received. I quite liked it on first reading, and then discovered On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Maybe the subject matter of ancient Greek myth and legend was closer to me than the Odes, I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, it goes to show if at first, you don’t like a poet, don’t give up. Keep trying their work and maybe something, somewhere, at some time, will eventually speak to you.

Posthumous image of Keats by William Hilton, in the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Auctioning Sylvia

In July, Sotheby auctioned possessions belonging to Syliva Plath and a pack of tarot cards caught my eye. A gift from Ted Hughes, the estimated price was £4-6000 but they sold for £151,200 (exclusive of taxes and costs). Since then, I’ve often wondered who owns the pack now, whether they use them or not, if they’re on display to selected visitors or maybe even shut up somewhere out of sight.

Possession always carries the risk of theft. Some owners choose to store valuable objects in secure vaults like The Geneva Free Port where investments appreciate in darkness year on year. Da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi, was there following its purchase for $75 million in 2013.  Also Klimt’s Water Serpents II, bought for $183.8 million in 2012, before being sold on privately a few years later. This secrecy contrasts with valuable items on public display in museums and art galleries around the world.

Images from the Marseilles tarot

Syliva Plath’s tarot is a Marseilles pack. Also known as tarocchi or tarock, the design can be traced back to 17th century Italy. Playing cards with four suits and court cards have been dated from 13th century China. Over time, the 22 images of what’s known as the Major Arcana, has been thought to function as some form of trumps. The association of the tarot with mysticism and divination isn’t referenced until the 18th century. Like astrology, the intuitive value of the cards is often rubbished, but the archetypal representations of the major arcana images remain a fascination for many.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think of the poet holding, shuffling and laying out the cards on a table. Syliva refers to the tarot pack in her letters and journals, although the references appear more to do with her intentions to learn rather than the record of any first-hand experiences. Ann Friel in Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot claims the cards appear in her poetry although some of the links feel tenuous rather than factual. It’s easy to conclude Plath-fans are looking for what they want to see rather than what is. Nevertheless, the tarot was undoubtedly a part of her life, one which sat alongside a desire to cast horoscopes and delve into the existence of fate as a force to be understood, sometimes challenged, but always present.

What gives inanimate objects, such as the tarot, the power to attract?

We’re moving into the world of relics. The church is full of them; alleged bones of saints, cross splinters, crown thorns and fabrics with the imprint of a face in blood and sweat. The last time the Shroud of Turin was on public display in Turin’s cathedral in 2015, millions queued to see it. Regardless of the lack of science, pieces of cloth like the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, or the Veil of Manoppello, all retain a fascination for those who want or need to believe in hard copy evidence of the existence of Christ.

It’s not just religious items which have this power. At Haworth Parsonage you can look at Emily’s writing desk, Charlotte’s clothes and a cambric hanky belonging to Anne. Possessions like these remain with us long after their owners have gone. I don’t think it’s too difficult to believe something of the people who owned and used them also remains left behind. The objects have become relics.

Relic derives from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’, and is a form of the Latin verb relinquere, to ‘leave behind, or abandon’.  Religious relics are housed in reliquaries which often form part of a shrine, a word from the Latin scrinium meaning a case or box for keeping papers.  A relic has survived the passage of time. Even where the original culture has disappeared, they remain cherished for their historical and emotional value.

Victorian collectors often housed their relics or collections in what’s referred to as a Cabinet of Curiosities. These are fascinating to see, for example, Wondrous Obsessions: The Cabinet of Curiosities, while A Cabinet of Curiosities includes the Rotunda at Scarborough and Whitby Museum. Both contain huge eclectic collections, open to the public and well worth a visit.

The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough

Objects create connections while the shared experience of seeing them feels incremental. The more they’re revered through the centuries, the greater their power. I’m not particularly religious but like to visit sacred places, both pagan and catholic, and have often felt something tangible which is hard to explain. Maybe it’s partly the accumulated effects of centuries of belief rather than a connection with some form of divinity.

Outside of the sacred, the 1999 ‘Monet in the 20th Century’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, included several of Monet’s giant water lilies. These were displayed with the canvas edge showing rather than it being hidden by frames. Viewers could see where the brush strokes faded away before stopping. Seeing this was like going back to the moment of origin. The personal connection was more effective than seeing the overall completed work.

Back to the auction of Slyvia Plath’s possessions. Sotheby’s called the sale ‘Your Own Sylvia‘, a play on words as successful bidders now ‘own’ the items, and in doing so can be said to possess something of Sylvia herself. This is an old belief, one stretching back to the ancient Greeks who thought a statue was much more than a representation. The physical shape of a god, or an image on the tomb of the dead made popular by the Romans, somehow indicated presence.

Tarot cards are traditionally believed to absorb energy from their owner. An old belief says no one else should handle them, other than shuffle or draw for a reading, and they should be kept in the dark. There’s little factual evidence they possess power, yet many people have unswerving faith in the ability of such inanimate objects being able to connect with external forces. This involves believing in several things simultaneously i.e. that such forces exist in the first place and the world is layered into conscious and subconscious awareness. In the case of the tarot, the archetypal images act as bridges or doorways to alternative realities.

image showing a selection of tarot cards

I wrote about the tarot in a post titled Tarot archetypes and Poetry Prompts which followed on from On Archetypes and Poetry. Both posts address the sources of creativity and the need for a translative process in order to make connections between the ‘here and now’ of the present and the existence of universal beliefs and memories. Jung called this the collective unconscious or a form of genetic memory. Without proof, I still believe the tarot can be a useful prompt for bringing these together. It’s similar to the experience of an open fire at night, or the single eye of a harvest moon rising low on the horizon in September.

image showing a fire at night beside a river

Whoever owns Sylvia Plath’s tarot is now in possession of a device which she appears to have believed was an effective prompt for poetry. Belief, like faith, is a powerful emotion and many people will claim meditation on the images can help cross the boundaries between the known and the unknown. When it comes to writing poetry, it’s these universal experiences that help create the resonance which stays with the reader long after the poem has ended. Someone, somewhere, wanted this tarot pack enough to pay over £150,000 in order to own it and I wonder if they are a poet.

 

Rejection blues

For some time I’ve been suggesting to fellow poets we need to create a rejection society. This would be our own Salon des Refusés  Somewhere to share how it feels to open emails containing the words ‘not this time‘ or a sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…

The standard advice is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. – or – the poem might not fit the theme – or – the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces.

These inevitably mean saying no to good work.

Too often there’s no feedback to explain the decision. It’s rare for editors to comment but occasionally one might refer to liking a particular poem and even say why. This is gold. Not only does it confirm you’re on the right path, it’s a welcome reward for having the courage to submit in the first place.

For most writers, it takes bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing in the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection is personal. You have to learn to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

I began sending work out in August 2020. Since then I’ve had 22 acceptances and 77 rejections. I’m not good at maths but that’s definitely more no’s than yes’s, and it still hurts to see a poem come home.

I’ve learned to think of rejections as:

  • opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
  • evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
  • a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
  • time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
  • confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!

Rejection is also an opportunity to improve my work.

A common reason for the no word, is the poem doesn’t conform to submission guidelines so always double-check these, especially the word or line limits, and be sure to read the journal you’re submitting to. If your work doesn’t fit its theme or style then it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy. As for any lines or phrases which didn’t feel quite right – now’s the time to rethink them. Make every syllable earn its place. less is more and all that. Reread some poetry books or watch YouTube poetry videos, both your favourites and maybe some new ones.

I’d recommend the following –

Find some critical friends. Being told your work is great does wonders for your ego, but you need more specific detail, such as what works and what doesn’t.

The downside of critique is conflicting advice which leaves you uncertain of which way to go. Here instinct and intuition come in.

I submitted a poem to an online poetry group and without exception, everyone came back to say they didn’t like the ending, yet I did.

The phrase ‘kill your darlings‘ has been attributed to various writers but it doesn’t really matter who first said it. What counts is being prepared to let go of something you think is good when no one else does. In this case, I’ve kept the poem as it was because I feel so strongly about it. However, if it goes out for submission and gets repeatedly rejected, at least I’ll have an idea why!

Stay positive.

Submission is a strange experience. Quite often a personal favourite is declined while the least favourite, or the one added at the last minute to make up the numbers, is accepted. Also, there’s the poem you really like which keeps coming back home, until someone somewhere unexpectedly says Yes.

Subjectivity is the name of the game and there isn’t much you can do, other than stay calm and keep submitting.

Remember you’re not alone.

J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was famously rejected by 12 different publishers, and the advice she received included “You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?” I wonder what they think today wherever they’re in the R section of Waterstones!

Stephen King is also no stranger to rejection. Carrie was turned down by no less than 30 publishers, Despite being told “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. he kept sending it out. You might not like the genre or Stephen King’s style of writing but his persistence is worth remembering.

There are lots more examples of rejection responses online, such as the one in the image above which was sent to Alice Walker about The Colour Purple.  If you’re having the rejection blues, try these https://www.openculture.com/2013/11/rejection-letters-sent-to-three-famous-artists.html I guarantee reading them will make you feel at least a tiny bit better.

To end with, always remember the quote below from Sylvia Plath (The Unabridged Journals)I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

The next post is from the series ‘beekeeping through history’ and offers a journey through the world of medieval beekeeping.


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tarot archetypes as poetry prompts

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Last month I posted some thoughts about archetypes and poetry. These touched on the role of the unconscious in creativity and how studying archetypes can help create bridges between our inner and outer worlds. Archetypes reside at an unconscious level, but by lifting them into the light, it’s possible to utilise these universal images and ideas. A tarot pack is full of archetypal figures and this post explores how they might be used for writing poetry.

Jo Bell in How to be a Poet suggests ‘Poetry is part alchemy, part practical formula‘ (2017: 34). Alchemy is a useful word for describing the writing of poems. Combining science and magic, the alchemical process is not dissimilar to how solid words can frame more transient thoughts and emotions. To be an alchemist is to work with the transmutation of one substance to another, while poets need to utilise both realism and symbols, and be able to segue seamlessly between conscious and unconscious levels.

The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sometimes a poem appears and you find yourself wondering where it came from, or weeks might pass without the magic happening. In the way an alchemist deals with multiple layers of reality, poets often work in those blurred spaces between the real and symbolic. For the times when the poetry gets stuck, I find tarot cards a useful stick for prodding the unconscious back into action.

A tarot deck consists of two parts; the major and minor arcana (arcana from the Latin for hidden or secret). There are clear similarities between the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds of today’s playing cards and the swords, cups, wands and pentacles in the minor arcana. However, the origins of the major arcana are less obvious.

These 22 cards are full of archetypal images such as the Fool, Magician, and Lovers but their exact beginnings are unknown. There’s no references to tarot prior to the 15th century, and current links with the occult and mysticism can all be traced to the writings of Eliphas Levi in the 1800’s. Working with tarot involves accepting these blurred origins. It’s best to think of the cards as being less about where they came from, and more about how they’re used today.

The strength of the tarot is it can be whatever you want. Packs have been linked to numerology, mysticism, spirituality, occult, astrology, kabbalah, fortune-telling, a psychological journey, therapy, meditation and so on. The list is almost endless. The reason for this eclectic spread of beliefs is because the cards use the language of symbols, and this ensures everyone can relate to them on a personal level.

examples from the Arthur Rackham tarot pack

There are over a hundred different tarot packs ranging from traditional designs to more contemporary ones, many of which are themed. I recently added the Arthur Rackham deck to my collection because I’ve always loved his illustrations.

However, most of the time, I use the Rider-Waite deck illustrated by ‎Pamela Colman Smith. First published in 1909, there’s a picture story on each of its 78 cards. I’ve had this pack all my life and it’s the images underpin a collection of 22 tarot poems, one for each card in the major arcana, which is currently under development. The choice of pack is important. The design has to have lasting appeal and this one remains my go-to set for new ideas and inspiration.

Connections with archetypes are clearly visible on most of the cards, in particular the major arcana.

For example, the Empress represents everything to do with creativity and the natural world. She is fertility, motherhood, abundance and femininity as opposed to the masculine energies of the Emperor, who stands for authority, leadership and control.

The High Priestess is also a feminine card, but whereas the Empress is about physical reality, the priestess represents the intuitive and spiritual world of the heart and mind, hidden behind the veil in her temple. The Hierophant is the male equivalent and stands for the physical dimensions of faith and belief, alongside a need for study and shared experience. While the High Priestess (initially called the Papess) is about solitary intuition, the Hierophant (or Pope) is more to do with bringing together people with similar spiritual attitudes and ideas.

The chariot is another physical card. This time the individual is being torn between opposing forces, represented by two sphinx or horses. These are often shown in contrasting colours and facing opposite directions. The Chariot signifies a need for strength or willpower to bring disparate, sometimes contradictory, elements together. Physical endeavour is required to enable a destination to be reached, or a desire to be realised.

In contrast, the Hermit is silent and solitary. This card always reminds me of the archetypal wizard in myth and legend. His stick might be a wand (tarot wands represent the element of fire) plus he carries a hexagon star for light.  The landscape suggests standing on top of a mountain range, but there’s no sense of movement. It’s a card which signifies both consciousness and unconsciousness and the Hermit has learned to move between them with grace.

Other cards with clear connections to archetypes include Death, Devil, Sun and Moon. The origins of cards such as the Hanged Man and Tower stuck by Lightening are less obvious but they are equally full of symbolic meaning.

While each card represents a given set of ideas and images, they can also spark unique insight which derives from individual ways of seeing and being in the world. Used as prompts for creative writing, the tarot offers a valuable psychological tool for bridging real and imaginary and can stimulate creative responses from both the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves.

image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/full-moon-forest-woman-wolf-1654539/

The cards can be used as tools for meditations, or to stimulate a free-writing session. You can work with the cards singly, in pairs, threes, or even a circle. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • imagine each character’s name and background.
  • where do they come from?
  • where are they going?
  • focus on potential sounds, what can you hear?
  • is the water smooth and calm, or wild?
  • examine the landscapes, are there mountains, a garden or a desert?
  • what can you smell?
  • how is the weather, is it hot, cold, wet, dry etc?
  • which colours are the strongest and what do they remind you of?
  • which three characters would you invite for dinner?

Get to know each person. Do you know anyone who looks like they do? Swap their gender. How would they change if they were smiling, shouting or crying?  Encourage the characters to speak and listen to what they say.

Try it and see what happens. Use the comment box below to share anything unexpected or inspirational. It might feel strange but no one is watching and the experience may well be worth it!


To come…

A future post will revisit the Walter Benjamin essay on The Work of Art in the time of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction by Douglas Davis (1991) to examine the notion of original work having an ‘aura’, which a reproduction cannot have but at the same time, challenge the exclusivity of a first edition. This will link to the advantages and disadvantages of the rise of internet poetry and poets.


tarot card images on this page from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rider-Waite_tarot_deck 


On Archetypes and Poetry

image showing coffee beans and musical notation
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/assembly-coffee-aroma-mood-figure-1001158/

Sometimes I think an archetype is another word for poem.

Successful poems have resonance. The reader ‘feels’ something which connects them to the words on the page or spoken poetry. This can be a similar reaction to the idea of universal archetypes, in particular the way Carl Jung described them.

Archetype comes from the ancient greek for original pattern and Jung identified 12 universal images and symbols found in cross-cultural myths, legends and fairy tales. The twelve are Ruler, Creator/Artist, Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Rebel, Hero, Wizard, Jester, Everyman, Lover, Caregiver. They represent instinctive understandings and recognition.

image showing a full moon in the mountains
image from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/painting-knight-night-oil-paints-3995999/

Poems work when they tap into something inside of us. A poem can shock or surprise, or simply resonate on an individual level. It might remind us of an experience or someone we once knew, and until that moment, the recognition may have existed unconsciously, only rising to the surface in response to stimuli. When this happens the effect can be powerful.

Jung proposed the deeper part of the psyche had two layers of unconsciousness, the personal and the collective. The personal unconscious was a unique collection of personal experiences, while the collective unconscious contained the archetypes, a set of universal emotions surrounding the characteristics of, for example, mother, child, trickster or expectations around life events such as birth and death.

Today. much has been written about the social construction of reality and how individuals are products of their environment. However, I think most people are aware of experiences which suggest something deeper may be going on. For example, seeing a bonfire at night, a full moon or the sound, sight, and smell of the sea, often seem to tap into something primeval and universal which can’t always be easily explained.

image showing a fire at night beside a river
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/bonfire%20at%20night/

A successful poem can have a similar effect. It touches us but we’re not always sure why while suggesting a link between poetry and archetypes also raises the often asked question – what is a poem?

This week, I read poet Wendy Pratt’s reflections on the writing of her new collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse. Wendy shares some thoughts on poetry as a process of trying ‘to locate the thing that is beneath the words‘. This sounds to me a bit like another way of saying there could be a relationship between the poem and universal concepts such as archetypes.

image showing the front cover of Wendy Pratt's new book When I think of my body as a horse

Wendy describes poetry as a ‘translative process’ and writing a poem involves trying to

‘…locate the thing that is beneath the words….poetry is the thing that emerges from between the lines, from between the thoughts that are created out of a need to define or rationalise life.

We need creativity to ‘manage our thoughts, we need that translative device to make sense of the instinctive animal part of us which sits below the higher thinking, problem-solving part of us. Poetry, then, sees the animal that is the instinct beneath the skin that is higher thinking self, it sees the truth beneath the words, the truth of ourselves. That’s how I see it.’

Reading this reminded me of a piece I wrote about the nature of poetry several years ago, which used the analogy of Avicenna’s thought experiment known as the Floating Man. This imagines human existence beyond the senses. The person floating in air is disconnected from touch, hear, taste or smell but still has consciousness. For me at that time, a poem which achieved resonance spoke of universal experiences. I aligned this with the concept of floating and being forced into the different type of awareness. This comes when we’re removed from the crutch of day-to-day reality, to be jolted into the recognition of something we didn’t see coming.

image showing a man in a parachute flowing in the air
image from https://pixabay.com/photos/search/floating%20man/

I also included a connection to the oral tradition of poetry, such as Homer, which tended to be fluid rather than fixed. Every time the Iliad and the Odyssey were told there were changes in style and detail, but the core message always survived. I suggested this idea of an unchanging core lay at the heart of poetry today, when it speaks of the universal aspects of life which readers recognise and identify with. Compared to the oral tradition, fixing a poem as text on the page is probably a damaging thing to do. The challenge for poets is to make their words light enough to float and create space where the reader can slot in their own interpretation.

Here’s a final analogy of poetry connected to beekeeping.

image showing honey bees on a frame
image showing honey bees from https://pixabay.com/photos/honey-bees-insects-hive-bee-hive-401238/

A primary form of contact between honey bees is the waggle dance.  On a bright sunny day, I watched a bee use its body to tell other bees where a good source of food could be found. The message had movement and shape and in a moment of insight, I realised the dance was usually performed in the darkness of a closed hive. These bees were using a different form of communication, a bit like poetry does.

I think we read poems in darkness. They exist as text, but the response we feel when a poem ‘works’ is something internal. It can’t be seen, only felt in the way a waggle dance exists without sight, and works using different stimuli such as vibration. To return to Wendy’s post, we need a ‘ translative process’ and maybe this is can be understood as interpreting a message received from the darkness of the subconscious where archetypes still survive.

The next post will look at how tarot cards use archetypal symbols and how their images can be a useful source of inspiration for poets and writers everywhere.

image showing a selection of tarot cards
image showing a selection of tarot cards from https://pixabay.com/photos/craft-tarot-divination-2728227/

Poems and other writings about bees

I began keeping bees last year and several people have asked if I’m writing poems about them. The answer is no. I’m not sure why this is.

My poetry mentor, Scarborough poet Felix Hodcroft, suggests I’m too close to them.  It’s only been nine months since my first two colonies arrived on the allotment. It’s been a steep learning curve, involving as much stress as delight! The ups and downs are at least equal, if not tilted slightly towards the problems. I lost a swarm within the first month and had several queens mysteriously vanish, all recorded in the Beginner’s Blog for the Beverley Beekeeper’s Association.

But I read a lot about bees, as in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and here are some of my recommendations from other writers and poets who’ve turned to bees for inspiration.

  • Sean Borrowdale’s Bee Journal records his experiences of beekeeping, highlighting the details in a poetic diary which has the reader standing beside him as he discovers the intricacies and mysteries of bees.
  • The Bees is a collection of poems from Carol Ann Duffy. Bee are the direct subject of some poems, while in others they exist on the periphery.
  • An anthology of bee poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey, brings together a selection of poems from a variety of authors, all fascinated by the influence of bees on individual lives.
  • Ten Poems about Bees introduced by Brigit Strawbridge Howard is a pamphlet anthology containing a selection of bee-inspired poems.
  • Six Bee Poems by Jo Shapcott speak of how keeping bees can involve a process of transmutation as they slowly take over your body and life.

Bees are also the topic of a number of novels.

  • The Bees by Laline Paull is written from the perspective of Flora 717, who works up from her intial role as a sanitation bee to become a nurse bee, and then a forager bee before promotion to taking care of the Queen bee. Echoing the iconic Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, about the gull who wanted to do more than fly, this work of fiction offers an insider view of life inside a hive.  
  • Telling the Bees by Peggy Haskell is set in mid-America. It tells the story of Albert, who has kept bees all of his life throughout the 20th century and contains wonderful descriptions of his experiences, shaped into a murder mystery story.  
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is set in Alabama in the 1960’s, a time of racial tensions and their consequences for Lily and her friend Rosaleen. Lily finds herself in the home of the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, who keep bees and the novel contains fascinating details of how they do this.
  • One of my favourite books (so far) is The Beekeepers Pupil by Sara George. Based on historical records, it tells the story of Francois Huber, a beekeeper in the 18th century who is slowly losing his sight and employs Francois Burnens as an assistant. Their discoveries included the realisation that queen bees mate during flight rather than in the hives, as was previously believed, and together they developed The Leaf Hive, with movable frames which allowed for greater observations. Translations of Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History Of Bees inscribed by Burnens, are also available online.
  • My other favourite novel is The History of Bees by Maja Lunde. This explores the lives of William from England, who in 1851 set out to build a new type of beehive using the concept of bee space, George in the US in 2007, a beekeeper whose livelihood is being challenged by modern farming methods, and Tao from China in 2098, whose job is to hand paint pollen onto fruit trees because the bees have disappeared.

There are also autobiographical accounts of beekeeping and I’d recommend reading A honeybee heart has five openings by Helen Jukes, which records the narrator’s first experiences of keeping bees in a top bar style hive in Oxford.

With regard to textbooks on beekeeping, the three most often recommended are

However, if you are like me, and fascinated by the history of keeping bees, I’d suggest the following.

  • The Hive – the story of the Honeybee and Us by Bee Wilson. This covers the art and craft of beekeeping from the ancient greeks and includes myth and legend alongside the development of beekeeping over the centuries.
  • The Sacred Bee by Hilda M Ransome which specialises in the folklore of bees and bee culture in including practices in China, Egypt, and Babylonia, as well as more recent customs in England and Europe.
  • The Buzz by Thor Hanson looks at the history of different types of bee, including the bumblebee, all accompanied with some fabulous colour photos of the different species.

So whatever your interest in bees, there’s something for everyone.

I’ve only listed the books I’m familiar with, so if you have any recommendations of your own, please share them in the comment box below.

Happy reading!

image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells
my own image showing a frame of bees with capped brood and capped honey cells

 

Poetry in the time of Covid

Does poetry still matter?

In the time of Covid, poetry is thriving. More people than ever are going online for ways to communicate and connect while the multitude of poetry groups, courses, workshops and open-mic performance events are encouraging engagement with the art and craft of poetry. This has to be good. Poetry was birthed from an oral tradition which existed for millennia, long before the stories they told were captured in words.

Assyrian bas-reliefs from the British Museum (public domain)

The Epic of Gilgamesh (author unknown) was subscribed by Sin-liqe-unninni sometime between 1300 and 1000 BC from much earlier texts. The written versions of the Iliad and Odyssey (Homer) are thought to be from around the 8th century BC, but were first spoken centuries before. Transmission of these works was fluid rather than fixed because nobody recited the same tale in exactly the same way. While the core remained solid, how it was told would shift and change depending on the audience.

image showing multiple copies of beowulf on a bookcase shelf
Image showing a selection of Beowulf texts (public domain)

Sagas such as Beowulf, the longest epic poem in Old English, and the bardic tradition of the Celtic world, e.g. the Mabinogion , first compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier sources, were all dependent on voice, sometimes accompanied by music.

The integration of poetry with song can be seen down through the years. Translations of the Iliad begin with references to singing, e.g. their first words Sing Goddess (Caroline Alexander and Richard Lattimore) and Rage Goddess. Sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles (Robert Fagles). Line six of Paradise Lost (John Milton) contains Sing heavenly muse, Song of myself (Walt Whitman)begins I celebrate myself, and sing myself while another Whitman poem is called I sing the body electric while the collection of poems in Cantos (Ezra Pound) have the Italian or song as their title.

image showing an illustration from the Iliad with greek text
Image showing illustration and text from the Iliad (public domain)

Somewhere through the years, the association of poetry with music was lost. I might have liked poetry classes better at school if this link had been used as a teaching technique. I hated poetry, and blame the National Curriculum of the time which thought young teenagers should know works such as Rape of the Lock (Alexander Pope), Khubla Khan (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and page after page of the pastoral epic Michael  (Wordsworth). I still remember with discomfort those long hours and even longer texts!

image shpwing typesetting
Image of typesetting text (public domain)

Today there may be more chances to understand poetry with the inclusion of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, and Benjamin Zephaniah. However, the decision to make poetry optional for GCSE students in England during 2021 risks the loss of any gains made by the promotion of more accessible language and ideas. We have Covid to thank for this which provides a neat return to the title of this post.

Over the past six months, I’ve joined a number of online poetry workshops and courses, with hundreds of other participants writing and sharing their work. The process of daily writing prompts, alongside the giving and receiving of feedback, has been a powerful experience. I’m learning what works and what fails to resonate. There is no bar to participation other than the standard agreement that contributions should not promote racism or abuse etc and critique be kind and constructive. For anyone seeking a starting point I’d recommend Wendy Pratt and Angela Carr or taking a look at this month of poetry prompts list from Jo Bell. YouTube is also an excellent source of advice and guidance, especially this channel by Jen Campbell who also introduces the history of fairy tales in videos such as Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and many more.

image showing the front cover of a book of fairy tales by hans christian anderson
Image showing a Hans Christian Anderson book (public domain)

To answer the question does poetry still matter? I think the answer is Yes. In the time of Covid, it seems to matter a lot. With millions of people being socially distanced and isolated, poetry can offer both distraction and occupation. Today, it exists in more forms than ever and  future post will explore page and stage poetry, which opens up the difference between poems written to be read or spoken.

For all I didn’t take to Wordsworth at school, he was spot on when he described poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity while, many centuries earlier, Plato wrote poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

With those quotes in mind here are the links to papers by Dana Gioia which are worth reading. Can Poetry Matter? and Poetry as Enchantment. The latter is also the title of a YouTube lecture by Gioia from the Library of Congress.

All comments welcome. Please use the Comment box below to reply.

image showing an open book with pages reflecting a filed of yellow flowers and a stream
Image from pixabay.com

 

 

Thetis poetry collection

Thetis changing into a lioness as she is attacked by Peleus, Attic red-figured kylix by Douris, c. 490 BC from Vulci, Etruria – Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.

I’m not sure what to call Thetis. One the one hand it’s a collection of poems but on the other, it’s a poetic narrative which could also become a script. At the present time, it doesn’t seem to fit into any existing categories and I’m not sure if this is a strength or a weakness.

I wrote Thetis as a submission for the final portfolio of my Creative Writing degree in 2018. It’s a collection of 65 poems which tell the story of the Trojan War through the life of Thetis, mother to Achilles.

In Homer, the universal themes of love, loss, and war in the Iliad are presented through the eyes of men yet women play primary roles. The motif of the rage of Achilles stemmed from his refusal to fight because Agamemnon took away Briseis and the war itself was caused by the abduction of Helen by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. The goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite have central roles and while Thetis appears at all the key moments, Homer doesn’t appear particularly interested in delving into her past or motivations for action.

Head of Thetis from an Attic red-figure pelike, c. 510–500 BC, Louvre

So far, Thetis has rarely appeared as a central character whereas my portfolio placed her centre stage. The poems begin with Zeus and Poseidon both being attracted to her but were dissuaded by the prophecy which warned her child would murder its father. They agreed to marry her to a mortal to break the curse and chose Peleus King of Pythia. When Peleus first encountered Thetis he was so overcome by lust for her beauty he raped her on the beach. At their wedding, Eris the Goddess of Strife, presented a golden apple to the goddesses Athena, Hera and Aphrodite. Inscribed with the words To the Fairest, Zeus ordered Paris to choose between them. Aphrodite convinced Paris to choose her by promising the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, thereby setting in place the events of the Trojan War.

Immortal Thetis with the mortal Peleus in the foreground, Boeotian black-figure dish, c. 500–475 BC – Louvre.

Some stories claim Achilles was the result of the rape of Thetis, while others say she had six children by Peleus, drowning each one. Achilles was the magical seventh child. Determined to save him, she dipped the babe in the River Styx for protection but was interrupted by Peleus before being fully submerged. This gave rise to the legend of the Achilles Heel, his only physical vulnerability.

Thetis returned to the ocean leaving her son to be raised by Peleus, who also fostered Patroclus. In an attempt to avoid Achilles being taken to Troy, Thetis hid him on the Island of Skyros where he was disguised as a maid to Princess Deidamia.

Odysseus discovered the deception and took Achilles to Troy, an event I used this as a trigger for Thetis to hate Odysseus and continually seek revenge.

Thetis and Hephaestus, Attic Red Figure, Antikensammlung Berlin

Part Two introduces Helen as the catalyst for the ten year war. It covers the death of Patroclus, Hector and Achilles himself, while Part Three covers the consequences for Thetis and how she finally takes revenge on Odysseus when he attempts to sail home to Ithaka once the wars were over.

Selections from Thetis were due to be performed at a Rotunda Nights event in Scarborough in May 2020, but like so many events that year, it was cancelled. Plans to reschedule the performance began but with the current situation, these are fragile to say the least and at the time of writing, I’m not sure what the next step will be.

Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles, Corinthian black-figure hydria, 560–550 BC; note the Gorgon shield, Louvre

Sources

My research was based on translations of Homer’s Iliad for the underlying story but I also read everything I could find which made reference to the events and people, in particular, Trojan Women and other plays by Euripides.

I also read contemporary work such as Alice Oswald’s Memorial and Christopher Logue’s War Music, alongside adaptations in novel form, including both Song of Achilles and Circe by Madelaine Miller, The Firebrand by Marian Zimmer Bradley, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Achilles by Elizabeth Cook and Ransom by David Malouf. 


 

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